Skelton: Panel will investigate Arlington cemetery failures

The House Armed Services Committee will investigate errors at Arlington National Cemetery after an Army probe found that 211 graves have been mishandled.

Misidentified or misplaced remains, improperly marked graves, mismanagement and bad recordkeeping were among the issues uncovered by the Army’s inspector general in a months-long probe.

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“Arlington National Cemetery is a sacred shrine and it breaks my heart to learn about mismarked gravesites, mishandling of remains, missing documentation, and failures to notify next-of-kin,” Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “This conduct is disgraceful and cannot be tolerated.” 

Skelton vowed that his panel will “work to ensure that every single element of the cemetery’s operations conveys the honor, dignity, and respect our nation’s military heroes and their families have earned.”

Skelton’s committee will hold a hearing on the issues discovered at Arlington. Ranking member, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) vowed to work with Skelton and Army Secretary John McHugh to ensure “these errors are never repeated and those responsible are disciplined appropriately.”

The lawmakers’ comments came after McHugh announced corrective measures to handle the issues identified by the inspector-general team. McHugh also said that the Army plans a more thorough investigation of the 211 gravesites in question.  

“While the Inspector General’s (IG) team found that ANC [Arlington National Cemetery] employees — under an extraordinarily high operational tempo of 27 to 30 funerals a day — performed their jobs with dedication and to a high professional standard, they also found them hampered by dysfunctional management, the lack of established policy and procedures, and an overall unhealthy organizational climate,” McHugh said on Thursday. “That ends today.”

McHugh appointed Kathryn Condon to the new position of executive director of the Army National Cemeteries Program, whose duties will include oversight of cemetery management and reviewing and updating policies and procedures.

McHugh also announced that an Army National Cemeteries Advisory Commission will be established to review policies and procedures. Former senators and Army veterans Max Cleland and Bob Dole will be leading that effort.

In addition, McHugh released a letter of reprimand he wrote to cemetery superintendent John Metzler, who announced his retirement Tuesday.

McHugh told Metzler that because of his decision to retire, McHugh won’t pursue “more severe disciplinary action” or direct his reassignment. McHugh told Metzler not to misinterpret the letter of reprimand as minimizing his “fault or responsibility.”

“You failed to properly execute oversight and management responsibilities to ensure ANC conducted its interment operations in accordance with applicable laws and policies,” McHugh wrote in the reprimand letter. Examples of failure included: “unmarked gravesites, improper handling of cremated remains, improperly marked gravesites, discrepancies between burial maps and gravesites and improper burial,” McHugh wrote.

Metzler will remain on the job for another three weeks, and will report directly to the new executive director. 

More than 330,000 veterans and their family members are buried at Arlington, including those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and some from as early as the Civil War. Presidents and some lawmakers, such as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), are also buried at Arlington.